With teachers as a backdrop, Obama made his case for greater access to preschool, arguing that poor children in particular can benefit. "Study after study shows that the earlier a child starts learning, the better he or she does down the road," he said. "But here's the thing: We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance."
It was Obama's second day on the road, after Tuesday's State of the Union address, to promote initiatives for his second term directly to the public.
His visit came on the same day Education Secretary Arne Duncan told senators on Capitol Hill that pending budget cuts could be devastating to current students and could hurt the nation's economy for years to come, if students aren't learning now.
"We're trying to do a lot more in terms of early childhood education, not go in the opposite direction," Duncan said. "Doing that to our most vulnerable children is education malpractice, economically foolish and morally indefensible."
Obama's team is warning Congress — and lawmakers' constituents — what is expected to happen if leaders fail to avert $85 billion in automatic budget cuts set to begin March 1. With the cuts looming, the administration has increased its pressure on lawmakers, and Obama's address Tuesday made clear he was not looking for compromise as he begins his second term.
Before his remarks in Decatur, Obama stopped by a classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, which serves kids from infancy through pre-kindergarten. He played games with about a dozen children, bending down to give hugs or offer a fist bump.
"If you're looking for a good bang for your education buck , this is it right here," Obama said afterward. He praised the teachers as highly qualified. "This is not babysitting. This is teaching."
The White House fleshed out Obama's plan Thursday, proposing a "continuum of high-quality early learning for a child, beginning at birth and continuing to age 5." The government would fund public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level — a more generous threshold than the current Head Start program, which generally serves kids from families below 130 percent of the poverty line. All 50 states and the federal government would chip in.
Obama also is proposing letting communities and child care providers compete for grants to serve children 3 and younger, starting from birth. And once a state has established its program for 4-year-olds, it can use funds from the program to offer full-day kindergarten, the plan says.
Still missing from Obama's plan are any details about the cost, a key concern among Republicans. The White House says federal investment in Head Start, an $8 billion program that serves almost 1 million kids, will grow. But Obama's aides have stressed that the new programs would not add to the nation's nearly $16.5 trillion debt.
"The last budget had over $1.5 trillion of mandatory and revenue savings, things like reductions in entitlements, closing loopholes," Jason Furman, a deputy director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Wednesday. He said the new initiatives would be smaller than that. Obama will outline details about the plan's cost when he sends his 2014 budget proposal to Congress next month, Furman said.
Ahead of that, the White House and Congress are weighing whether to let the deep automatic spending cuts to take hold on March 1. If that happens, some 10,000 teachers could be out of work and 70,000 students could be kicked out of Head Start programs, Duncan warned lawmakers. The cuts would also force an additional 14,000 Head Start workers to be laid off and would mean 1.2 million students from low-income families would have their schools' funding cut. Washington also would stop paying its share of 7,200 special needs educators' salaries.
If the White House wants to move ahead, officials are going to need help from the states to provide political cover and dollars alike. House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday involving the federal government in early childhood education was "a good way to screw it up." The Republican chairman of the House committee overseeing education policy, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., was cool toward the proposal and was unlikely to support new spending on it. And even Obama's allies acknowledged there was little Washington could do without governors' help.
Kline said that "before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start."
Republicans and conservatives have questioned the effectiveness of Head Start programs, citing studies such as a Health and Human Services Department report last year showing that, while at-risk students enrolled in the pre-kindergarten programs saw tremendous gains in vocabulary and social development, those benefits largely faded by the time students reached third grade. The HHS report didn't explain why the students saw a drop-off in performance or predict how they would fare as they aged.
"There's reason for huge skepticism," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. "Most states are still in a ditch financially, and it's going to be a couple years before they're out of it. ... I don't know where the states are going to come up with the money for this."
Scores of other studies, however, were more favorable toward the program, which has been shown to make at-risk students more likely to complete high school and avoid criminal arrests. In pure dollars and cents, academics called it a smart investment.